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Alexis Petru headshot

Philadelphia More Than Doubles Recycling Rate

By Alexis Petru

Just in time for last week’s America Recycles Day, the city of Philadelphia announced an impressive achievement in waste reduction: The City of Brotherly Love has increased the amount of materials it recycles by 155 percent over the past six years.

The city collected a record amount of recyclables – 128,000 tons – through its residential curbside recycling program, as well as from city buildings and public spaces during the latest fiscal year, according to the city’s recycling office and mayor’s office of sustainability. That means Philly kept 21 percent of its residential discards from ending up in the dump in the 2014 fiscal year – a 4.6 percent increase over last year’s diversion numbers.

Philadelphia’s recycling efforts had additional environmental benefits beyond the ones most commonly associated with recycling, such as keeping materials out of the landfill and saving resources by reprocessing goods already in the system. The city’s recycling program also cuts its carbon footprint by nearly 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, the city said in a statement.

The fifth largest U.S. city hasn’t always been a recycling rock star. Philadelphia was the first city in Pennsylvania to set up a curbside recycling collection program for its residents in 1989, but back in 2008 when the current mayor, Michael Nutter, took office, the city only diverted about 55,000 tons, or 8 percent, of its residential waste from the landfill.

To boost its recycling rates, Philly undertook an overhaul of its curbside recycling program that serves more than 525,000 households. The city’s streets department increased recycling pickup from every other week to weekly, distributed new recycling bins to residents at events and through community groups, and added more materials to the recycling program – cardboard, plastics, and food and drink cartons.

The city also switched to a single-stream collection system, in which all recyclables (paper, plastics, glass, etc.) are collected in one bin, rather than sorted out and placed in separate containers. Though not without its share of controversy, single-stream recycling is more convenient for residents and generally leads to higher participation levels and more materials collected.

In 2010, Philadelphia teamed up with Recyclebank to set up the Philly Recycling Rewards Program, which compensates residents that recycle with points that can redeemed for discounts at local retailers. Over 190,000 households have signed up for the program since its inception, according to the city’s website.

If the Recycling Rewards Program is the 'carrot' of Philadelphia’s recycling program, then the Streets and Walkways Education and Enforcement program, or SWEEP, is the 'stick.' Under this law, residents are required to separate garbage from recycling and can receive warnings or fines for putting recyclables into their trash bin, or vice-versa.

While Philly’s progress is remarkable, it’s tempting to compare the city’s 21 percent residential recycling rate with recycling statistics from cities like San Francisco, which boasted an 80 percent diversion rate last year. But putting recycling rates side-by-side is like comparing apples and oranges, says Phil Bresee, director of Philadelphia’s recycling office.

San Francisco’s rate of material it diverts from the landfill includes residential and commercial trash, as well as construction and demolition debris, he says. Philly’s number only takes into account the waste generated by households and public buildings and spaces.

The city’s 'all-in' diversion rate for calendar year 2012, including residential, commercial, and construction and demolition wastes, is around 50 percent, Bresee says. Last year’s figure is still being calculated.

It’s also important to note that states have different rules for what counts as recycling, Bresee goes on to say. In California, for example, cities can claim recycling credit for collecting yard and food waste that ends up as daily cover material for landfills – not so in Pennsylvania and many other states.

Breese also points out that other recycling programs with higher residential recycling rates typically collect organic materials, including yard and food waste. Philly’s curbside program, however, currently only collects metal, glass, plastics, paper, cardboard and cartons – and not yard or food waste – although the city council is considering organics collection.

But when Philadelphia compares the material it collects from the city’s single-stream program to statistics from other major cities, Bresee says, Philly ranks among the best, collecting more than 470 pounds of recyclables per household each year.

While Philadelphia has more work ahead of it if the city wants to further slash waste, it's clear that Philly is on the right path towards waste reduction. And if this city can turn around a failing recycling program and improve collection by 155 percent, then what can't it accomplish?

Image credit: Flickr/R’lyeh Imaging

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru headshot

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

Read more stories by Alexis Petru